Photo by Bobby Gavin
By Katy Barden
It wasn’t on the long list of target achievements she’d scribbled down as a 16-year-old, but the retrospective addition of ‘double World Masters Champion’ has sparked a resurgence for West Linton PE teacher Stacey Downie.
The 35-year-old is a Masters athlete and a reigning Scottish Senior champion. The two are not mutually exclusive.
In February 2022, she won the national indoor 400m title, and following her global success over 200m and 400m at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Finland, she took silver in the 100m and 200m at the 4J Senior Championships in Aberdeen in August.
Perhaps most notably – because this one was a bucket list item – she also won the 153rd New Year Sprint, only the third female athlete to do so since the inaugural race in 1870.
Downie’s first outing at the New Year Sprint was in 2003 and she has competed in the event almost every year since. Hers is a career driven by commitment, dedication and talent but also, frustratingly at times, compromised by illness and injury.
She believes that her relatively late development in the sport – she earned her first national age-group vest in 2006 and her first Senior vest in 2007 – has worked to her advantage and contributed to her longevity.
Her first coach, Charlie Russell, a highly acclaimed Scottish Borders-based sprints coach, has also been integral to her success.
‘I first met Charlie when I was around 12,’ says Stacey.
‘He taught me to grow up . . . and he didn’t allow me to get too big for my boots.’
For almost a decade, Russell guided Downie to multiple Scottish, English and British titles from their grass training base in Innerleithen, while she honed her competition skills and learned how to race on the Highland Games circuit.
‘I didn’t even consider leaving Charlie when I started at University,’ she continues.
‘I trained with him five days per week. I think having that stability, that’s why I did so well. He never put much pressure on me, but he knew when it came to a race I’d always perform.’
NEW YEAR SPRINT WINNER!! 🥇🏆
Feels amazing to finally say that!! This has been a dream of mine since I was 16 and I've done it!!
My third final+after placing 4th and 3rd, this was third time lucky!!
Special to celebrate with coaches who have worked with me all these years pic.twitter.com/yxnNy7ch2X
— Stacey Downie (@StaceyDownie) July 31, 2022
Winning the New Year Sprint (in the summer of 2022) was a dream that Downie and Russell, now in his 80s, had nursed for years.
Stacey had considered travelling south to compete in the English Championships but was undecided.
‘It was a toss-up between potentially winning something versus performing for times,’ she says. ‘I spoke to Charlie, and he thought I had a good mark. He said, ‘If I was you, I’d stay here.’
Downie’s renewed focus on achievements over times has served her well. It’s had to.
‘Last winter I was looking at all my close friends in the sport and thinking they’d all make the Commonwealth Games team, so why not me?’ she says.
‘I was trying to put everything in place because every provider I worked with had changed, and I thought, ‘Is this a sign I should just retire?’.
Stacey in indoor action early in 2022 (photo by Bobby Gavin)
Victory at the Emirates Arena in February was a turning point.
scottishathletics Historian Arnold Black confirmed that in taking gold she had completed a clean sweep of national indoor titles (60m, 200m and 400m) – matching the indoor achievement of Melanie Neef – to add to individual outdoor titles at 100m, 200m and 400m. In doing so, she became the first athlete to win all Scottish titles.
‘I ended up running an indoor PB for gold (56.42), so I thought, ‘Oh, OK, maybe I’ve still got it’,’ she says.
‘Finding out from Arnold that I’d made a bit of history was special and gave me a boost going into outdoors. It also allowed me to see I was creating a legacy for future sprinters to aim at.
‘I think I was in quite a good place coming out the winter, but from March onwards it just didn’t work out. It felt like every single thing that could have gone wrong did go wrong.’
It does of course ‘take a village’, as the saying goes, and alongside the ever-present Russell, Downie has been supported throughout her career by some of Scotland’s most experienced coaches.
Not long after she earned her first Scottish senior title and became British U23 champion over 200m (2008), and when Russell believed he’d taken her as far as he could, she linked up with hugely respected coach Bill Walker at Edinburgh AC.
Walker coached her through two significant spells in her career (2008-12 and 2014-18). 2011 was particularly successful with Downie achieving a career high UK ranking of 17th in the 200m, her first individual Scotland senior titles in the 60m and 100m – adding to 200m titles she’d won in 2008 and 2009 – as well as international representation.
Walker believed Downie had great potential in the 400m and encouraged her development in that event. She lowered her PB three times during the 2017 season and was close to a 4x400m relay spot for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, missing out by only 0.3 seconds.
Success with Edinburgh AC followed at the Scottish Relays in September (photo by Bobby Gavin)
Between spells with Walker, she was guided by former scottishathletics Performance Manager Nigel Hetherington who has continued to offer support and advice, in a mentor capacity, ever since.
Hetherington recalls his first encounter with Downie, having been invited down to the Borders by Russell to watch her train in his initial role as National Sprints Manager in 2006.
‘I pulled up in Innerleithen and as I was walking into the park I could see this sprint group on the grass in the middle of a rep, running a curve,’ he says.
‘There were a couple of lads – they were the whippets – and tucked in right behind them was this lass just flowing with all the grace and power of a highly-tuned gazelle. I thought, ‘that’s her, that’s who he wants me to see’.’
Hetherington rewarded Downie with her first U20 international selection later on that season.
In 2018, having been agonisingly close but missing out on another Commonwealth Games, Downie linked up with Eddie McKenna on a remote coaching basis.
She believed that the Aberdeen AAC coach was the ‘key’ to her puzzle and under his expert guidance she enjoyed a period of resurgence during which she won her first national 400m title, her first individual international selections at 400m and Scotland captaincy at the 2019 Manchester International.
Unfortunately, the impact of Covid in 2020 took its toll and when McKenna chose to take a step back, she found herself disappointed, but also optimistic at the momentum she’d built.
Stacey spoke to us at the 4J Senior Scottish Champs in Aberdeen after medal success and under-lined her enjoyment of the sport
Over the past season Downie was remote-coached by Ryan Oswald, who helped her refine her indoor 400m running to win her first Scottish title. He also encouraged her to consider the World Masters Championships outdoors which set off a summer of success.
‘I thought, ‘I don’t feel that old yet, but is this something I should take advantage of?’, she says.
‘One of my boyfriend’s worries was that the connotation of going out there was that I’d never compete for Scotland again (as a Senior). But it comes down to performances and, if I run quickly enough, I’ll still get selected.
‘For women, I feel like there’s this thing that you get to your mid-20s, and you stop competing.
‘I got my teaching degree when I was 24/25, and I remember getting asked on a podcast if I regretted that – like could I have postponed my teaching degree a little bit longer to explore my running career and come back to it? But I needed a career as well.
‘With the Masters, the connotation has often been, ‘you’re old, you’re past it, why are you still competing?’.
‘In fact, it is a really decent standard. The fact that everyone is competitive, it’s about getting the best out of themselves. That’s where I’m coming from now.’
Downie’s success in Finland has played its part in her change of perspective. It has also given her a welcome opportunity to re-write her list of athletics dreams.
‘I wrote down on a bit of paper when I got there ‘200m world champion, 400m world champion’, because I thought, no matter what, I’m getting through this with some sort of success.
‘Charlie taught me how to focus on what I could do, and he taught me how to win.’
Seeing people achieve their goals across the age groups has re-energised Downie.
It has also reinforced the value of taking the opportunities afforded to you; a point evidenced by her New Year Sprint win and her podium performances at the Scottish Senior championships in August.
She has also seen the value of legacy, and points to inspirational athletes such as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, as well as tennis player Serena Williams, as important role models in sport. She knows that she, too, must play her part.
‘There aren’t many folk my age still competing at my level in Scotland, let alone in the UK, so I’ve got a real opportunity to try and influence the sport a bit more on the women’s side,’ she says.
‘Performance-wise, I still don’t think I’ve got the best out of myself, but eventually I’d love to get into coaching and help on the female side, that’s where I see my journey going’
Stacey was named Scotland captain alongside Jax Thoirs for the Manchester International in 2019